This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded "the most contaminated place in the world." As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the US government agencies responsible.
Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging industry pushes the next wonder technology—in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. "In my opinion," says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, "what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning."
The process of "fracking" starts by drilling a mile or more vertically, then outward laterally into 500-million-year-old shale formations, the remains of oceans that once flowed over parts of North America. Millions of gallons of chemical and sand-laced water are then propelled into the ground at high pressures, fracturing the shale and forcing the methane it contains out. With the release of that gas come thousands of gallons of contaminated water. This "flowback" fluid contains the original fracking chemicals, plus heavy metals and radioactive material that also lay safely buried in the shale.
The industry that uses this technology calls its product "natural gas," but there's nothing natural about up-ending half a billion years of safe storage of methane and everything that surrounds it. It is, in fact, an act of ecological violence around which alien infrastructures—compressor stations that compact the gas for pipeline transport, ponds of contaminated flowback, flare stacks that burn off gas impurities, diesel trucks in quantity, thousands of miles of pipelines, and more—have metastasized across rural America, pumping carcinogens and toxins into water, air, and soil.
Sixty percent of Pennsylvania lies over a huge shale sprawl called the Marcellus, and that has been in the fracking industry's sights since 2008. The corporations that are exploiting the shale come to the state with lavish federal entitlements: exemptions from the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Drinking Water Acts, as well as the Superfund Act, which requires cleanup of hazardous substances. The industry doesn't have to call its trillions of gallons of annual waste "hazardous." Instead, it uses euphemisms like "residual waste." In addition, fracking companies are allowed to keep secret many of the chemicals they use.
Pennsylvania, in turn, adds its own privileges. A revolving door shuttles former legislators, governors, and officials from the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into gas industry positions. The DEP itself is now the object of a lawsuit that charges the agency with producing deceptive lab reports, and then using them to dismiss homeowners' complaints that shale gas corporations have contaminated their water, making them sick. The people I interviewed have their own nickname for the DEP: "Don't Expect Protection."
Randy Moyer is a pleasant-faced, bearded 49-year-old whose drawl reminds you that Portage, his hardscrabble hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, is part of Appalachia. He worked 18 years—until gasoline prices got too steep—driving his own rigs to haul waste in New York and New Jersey. Then what looked like a great opportunity presented itself: $25 an hour working for a hydraulic-fracturing subcontractor in northeastern Pennsylvania.
In addition to hauling fracking liquid, water, and waste, Randy also did what's called, with no irony, "environmental." He climbed into large vats to squeegee out the remains of fracking fluid. He also cleaned the huge mats laid down around the wells to even the ground out for truck traffic. Those mats get saturated with "drilling mud," a viscous, chemical-laden fluid that eases the passage of the drills into the shale. What his employer never told him was that the drilling mud, as well as the wastewater from fracking, is not only highly toxic, but radioactive.
In the wee hours of a very cold day in November 2011, he stood in a huge basin at a well site, washing 1,000 mats with high-pressure hoses, taking breaks every so often to warm his feet in his truck. "I took off my shoes and my feet were as red as a tomato," he told me. When the air from the heater hit them, he "nearly went through the roof."
Once at home, he scrubbed his feet, but the excruciating pain didn't abate. A "rash" that covered his feet soon spread up to his torso. A year and a half later, the skin inflammation still recurs. His upper lip repeatedly swells. A couple of times his tongue swelled so large that he had press it down with a spoon to be able to breathe. "I've been fried for over 13 months with this stuff," he told me in late January. "I can just imagine what hell is like. It feels like I'm absolutely on fire."
Family and friends have taken Moyer to emergency rooms at least four times. He has consulted more than 40 doctors. No one can say what caused the rashes, or his headaches, migraines, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat, or the shooting pains down his back and legs, his blurred vision, vertigo, memory loss, the constant white noise in his ears, and the breathing troubles that require him to stash inhalers throughout his small apartment.
In an earlier era, workers' illnesses fell into the realm of "industrial medicine." But these days, when it comes to the US fracking industry, the canaries aren't restricted to the coalmines. People like Randy seem to be the harbingers of what happens when a toxic environment is no longer buried miles beneath the earth. The gas fields that evidently poisoned him are located near thriving communities. "For just about every other industry I can imagine," says Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, coauthor of a landmark study that established fracking's colossal greenhouse-gas footprint, "from making paint, building a toaster, building an automobile, those traditional kinds of industry occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools." By contrast, natural gas corporations, he says, "are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals and schools inside their industrial space."